The legend of ‘Lesbianville’: Looking back at a city nickname and claim to fame

  • A photo of a clip from an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 14, 1992, featuring a photograph from the National Enquirer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/3/2019 5:35:41 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The legend of “Lesbianville” can be traced back to two local women, an engagement announcement in this newspaper, and a sensationalist article in a supermarket tabloid.

In 1991, Karen Bellavance and Beth Grace were engaged and wanted it known and celebrated.

So, they submitted their announcement to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, before fusing their last names. It took a while, Beth Bellavance-Grace said recently, but eventually, the notice was published as what is believed to be the first same-sex engagement announcement in the history of the paper.

Beth Bellavance-Grace remembers her mother coming to the Gazette office urging staffers to publish the announcement. “At the time, I guess it was unheard of, putting something like that in the paper,” she said.

Not long after the notice ran, the two women were contacted by the New England bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, Elizabeth Mehren.

Mehren told the Gazette in an email that one of her editors heard Northampton was “the lesbian Ellis Island” and assigned her to do a story. She doesn’t remember how she found out about the Bellavance-Grace announcement, “but that in itself was a story — a groundbreaking development,” she said.

So, Mehren invited the couple to an interview over tea at the Hotel Northampton for an article about the lesbian-friendly city. Published in December 1991, it was titled “A place to call home: A small Massachusetts college town has become a haven for women, especially lesbians.

In the interview, Grace told the L.A. Times about Northampton’s unofficial nickname: “I’ve heard it called Lesbianville,” she said, adding, “I think that’s kind of nice.”

Today, both women still live in Northampton. Karen Bellavance-Grace works for the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Beth Bellavance-Grace is an education support professional at Jackson Street School.

After their ceremony in 1992, and later their legal marriage, they stayed together for 20 years, before divorcing in 2012. They have two sons who are now in their 20s. And as much as their lives have changed since the early 1990s, the early press they did together has a way of reappearing.

The L.A. Times story attracted the attention of other publications, including The Washington Post, and the word about Northampton spread. The couple started hearing from other journalists, including a reporter from a newspaper in Plymouth, Massachusetts — at least that’s what he said, according to the two women. He said he was doing a story comparing and contrasting Provincetown and Northampton, so Bellavance and Grace agreed to do an interview and get their picture taken, they said.

When the photographer arrived in Northampton, he tried to get the couple to take a photo in their bedroom, Bellavance said, and when they declined, he then asked them to pose in front of the lingerie shop Gazebo. “That’s creepy,” Bellavance said.

“He ended up just taking random pictures of us walking down the street,” she added. “We didn’t think anything of it.”

Then, one day when Bellavance was working at Pride & Joy, a downtown Northampton book and gift shop that catered to the LGBTQ community, a visitor came into the store asking for her autograph. Confused, she asked why.

“You’re in the National Enquirer!” the visitor said.

In April of 1992, the tabloid ran an article titled “Strange town where men aren’t wanted” about Northampton with a photo of Bellavance and Grace wearing matching leather jackets, smiling and holding hands on Main Street. The caption notes that they had just announced their engagement — in air quotes. The dateline: “Lesbianville, U.S.A.”

Of Northampton and the surrounding area, the article said that “10,000 cuddling, kissing lesbians call it home sweet home” and listed nine reasons why Northampton was a destination for lesbians, including that a local bookstore sold lesbian fiction and that “There’s a yearly Lesbian Home Show — where men are NOT welcome.”

“I totally freaked out,” Beth Bellavance-Grace said on Thursday. “I went to the store and bought all the Enquirers I could buy. I called the switchboard of the Enquirer a million times.” Karen Bellavance-Grace also remembers going out and buying copies of the tabloid.

“It was terrible at the time,” she said. “Certainly, it’s not at all what we want to be remembered for in our lives — that we were in the National Enquirer.”

But they felt they didn’t have much recourse — getting a lawyer would have cost thousands of dollars and distracted from their upcoming wedding, Karen Bellavance-Grace said.

“It was sensationalistic, but it wasn’t slanderous,” she added, saying of the reporter “there was nothing we could have done to hold him accountable.” The women gave a similar account in the Gazette in April of 1992, after the tabloid hits newsstands earlier that month.

Media madness

Around the same time, in the early 1990s, the media descended upon Northampton focusing on its lesbian community. The story of Northampton as a lesbian-friendly city went the “1990s version of viral,” Karen Bellavance-Grace said. A 20/20 segment called Northampton a “lesbian mecca,” and the city made headlines like “A town like no other” in a 1993 Newsweek article and “You don’t have to be a lesbian to live here, but it doesn’t hurt” in a 1993 Chicago Tribune article.

All the media attention inspired lesbians to move here, many women who were living here at the time told the Gazette.

“I had people calling Pride & Joy saying, ‘I just saw this in the newspaper, and I’m renting a U-Haul — where can I get a job, where should I live?’” said Karen Bellavance-Grace.

“People were in so much pain where they were,” she said, “they were willing to give up and move here.”

Kaymarion Raymond, author of a blog about local LGBTQ history called From Wicked to Wedded, said some gay women were disappointed when they moved here. “They come here and find it’s not paradise. It’s unaffordable,” she said.

J.M. Sorrell, spokesperson for Noho Pride and a wedding officiant, said she would meet people in Northampton and ask when they settled in the area. “‘Oh, we came here after the 20/20 segment,’” she recalled many saying. “I started hearing that all the time. It’s a real thing.”

Although Beth Bellavance-Grace remembers liking the L.A. Times piece, when it came to the Enquirer’s article, she and Karen Bellavance-Grace were upset they had been lied to about the content of the article, they said.

The headline, “Strange town where men aren’t wanted,” was particularly hard to deal with, both women said.

Walking down the street, Beth Bellavance-Grace said, strangers would sneer at her: “People were giving me a hard time, people bumping into me.”

“To perpetuate the hurtful idea that, in order to love a woman, you have to hate men — it is just painful on so many levels,” Karen Bellavance-Grace said.

She added that there were many lesbians taking care of gay men dying of AIDS at the time.

Beth Bellavance-Grace said she was proud to be out as a lesbian at the time and that “it just felt like such a mockery of being out in the world to be made fun of in that way, and I felt so powerless over it.”

A deeper history

Others also felt upset about the Enquirer’s article, telling the Gazette in 1992 that it perpetuated stereotypes.

Raymond, who lived in Northampton in the 1970s and now lives in South Deerfield, said the article was exploitative — and missing important context about how Northampton came to be an LGBTQ-welcoming city.

Northampton in the early 1980s was a scary place for many gay women to live — 1983, in particular, was called “the freak-out year,” according to an article by Suzanne Wilson in a 1988 issue of the Gazette’s Hampshire Life magazine. “Lesbian women who lived here then recall being angry and frightened, as reports and rumors that lesbian women were being attacked and raped swirled through the community,” Wilson wrote, noting that multiple lesbian women around the community received “obscene telephone calls and death threats.”

Later, a Northampton man was convicted of making a number of the calls. An anti-discrimination ordinance, which included protections around sexual preference, was introduced in 1983, but later the City Council withdrew it “because supporters knew it would not pass,” Wilson reported.

Raymond said years of organizing went into making people feel comfortable being out in Northampton.

Despite the fact that some residents didn’t appreciate how the Enquirer article characterized the city, it was amusing to others.

“We were all just sort of tickled by the whole thing,” said Fern Spierer, who is subtly featured in the article in a photo of graffiti in town that says “Fern and Lisa 4ever.” The photo caption remarks that, in Northampton, “even the graffiti is homosexual.”

Spierer, who has lived in the area since the ‘80s, said she was casually dating someone named Lisa at the time. Spierer said that Lisa spray-painted the graffiti one evening during a snowstorm. “It was totally done as a joke,” she recalled.

As a native New Yorker, Spierer said she didn’t always feel comfortable holding her partner’s hand there, but that was “something that was barely blinked at in Northampton,” she said. “Leaving here, it wasn’t safe.”

As for that engagement notice, Karen Bellavance-Grace remembers some “less than kind” comments about it, but looking back what she remembers most are the messages of support. She also remembers hearing from “the people who saw it in the paper from towns who did not feel safe,” she said. “They felt like there was a place in the world where they could be respected and valued. That was life-saving for them.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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